Tag Archives: content ownership

The Increasing Price We Pay For The Free Internet

The Price of Freedom is Visible HerePicture : Rhadaway.

This is a follow-up on my previous post, A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers. A key point in that post was that we need to be customers, not commodities.  In the cases of Facebook, Google and the vast majority of free web resources, the business model is to provide a content platform for the public and fund the business via advertising.  In this model, simply, our content is the commodity.  The customer is the advertiser.  And the driving decisions regarding product features relate more to how many advertisers they can bring on and retain than how they can meet the public’s wants and needs.

It’s a delicate balance.  They need to make it compelling for us to participate and provide the members and content that the advertisers can mine and market.  But since we aren’t the ones signing the checks, they aren’t accountable to us, and, as we’ve seen with Facebook, ethical considerations about how they use our data are often afterthoughts.  We’ve seen it over and over, and again this week when they backed off on a real names policy that many of their users considered threatening to their well-being.  One can’t help but wonder, given the timing of their statement, how much new competitor Ello’s surge in popularity had to do with the retraction. After all, this is where a lot of the people who were offended by the real names policy went.  And they don’t want to lose users, or all of their advertisers will start working on Ello to make the Facebook deal.

Free Software is at the Heart of the Internet

Freeware has been around since the ’80’s, much of it available via Bulletin Boards and online services like CompuServe and AOL. It’s important to make some distinctions here.  There are several variants of freeware, and it’s really only the most recent addition that’s contributing to this ethically-challenged business model:

  • Freeware is software that someone creates and gives away, with no license restrictions or expectation of payment. The only business model that this supports is when the author has other products that they sell, and the freeware applications act as loss leaders to introduce their paid products.
  • Donationware is much like Freeware, but the author requests a donation. Donationware authors don’t get rich from it, but they’re usually just capitalizing on a hobby.
  • Freemium is software that you can download for free and use, but the feature set is limited unless you purchase a license.
  • Open Source is software that is free to download and use, as well as modify to better meet your needs. It is subject to a license that mostly insures that, if you modify the code, you will share your modifications freely. The business model is usually based on providing  training and support for the applications.
  • Adware is free or inexpensive software that comes with advertising.  The author makes money by charging the advertisers, not the users, necessarily.

Much of the Internet runs on open source: Linux, Apache, OpenSSL, etc. Early adopters (like me) were lured by the free software. In 1989, I was paying $20 an hour to download Novell networking utilities from Compuserve when I learned that I could get a command line internet account for $20 a month and download them from Novell’s FTP site. And, once I had that account, I found lots more software to download in addition to those networking drivers.

Adware Ascendant

Adware is now the prevalent option for free software and web-based services, and it’s certainly the model for 99% of the social media sites out there.  The expectation that software, web-based and otherwise, will be free originated with the freeware, open source and donationware authors. But the companies built on adware are not motivated by showing off what they’ve made or supporting a community.  Any company funded by venture capital is planning on making money off of their product.  Amazon taught the business community that this can be a long game, and there might be a long wait for a payoff, but the payoff is the goal.

Ello Doesn’t Stand A Chance

So Ello comes along and makes the same points that I’m making. Their revenue plan is to go to a freemium model, where basic social networking is free, but some features will cost money, presumably business features and, maybe, mobile apps. The problem is that the pricing has to be reasonable and, to many, any price is unreasonable, because they like being subsidized by the ad revenue. The expectation is that social media networks are free.  For a social network to replace something as established as Facebook, they will need to offer incentives, not disincentives, and, sadly, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t going to leave unless they are severely inconvenienced by Facebook, regardless of how superior or more ethical the competition is.

So I don’t know where this is going to take us, but I’m tired of getting things for free.  I think we should simply outlaw Adware and return to the simple capitalist economy that our founders conceived of : the one where people pay each other money for products and services. Exchanging dollars for goods is one abstraction layer away from bartering. It’s not as complex and creepy as funding your business by selling the personal information about your users to third parties.  On the Internet, freedom’s just another word for something else to lose.

Media and Mediums


This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

Those of us who actively create internet content — which includes many nonprofits, at this point – were fairly blindsided by a small, subsequently revoked change in Facebook’s terms of service this month. The earlier terms allowed Facebook to use any content that a user publishes to the site in a variety of ways, as long as the user kept the content on the site. The change extended Facebook’s rights to use beyond it’s time on their system. They could keep using it after the user removed it, and they could even keep using it after the user cancelled their account. Facebook’s defense of this action, in a blog post by Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO, was that the intention was to insure that people whom you shared information with, such as emails, links or notes, didn’t lose access to that information if/when you removed it. But, since the policy didn’t isolate that use example from the broader uses, such as Facebook advertising their services with your content, or providing it to third parties, the reassurance left a lot of us cold. A use policy on a social networking site should establish, clearly, what will and won’t happen with the content that you post to it, not leave it open ended to this extreme.

This incident prompted a fascinating post by Dr. Amanda French, comparing the license agreements of a variety of popular social networks. This is an important read, but the upshot is: Google services and MySpace have pretty clear terms; Facebook and LinkedIn claim a broad range of rights to content that we publish on their systems.

To me this is a bit like the separation of church and state. I expect that a social networking site, like an ISP, is a medium that I can use to communicate and share things, including things that i create and hold copyright to; not a magazine that licenses and retains ownership of works that I submit. If that’s not the case, then I want to know that and be very careful about what I’m putting up there. In my case, I’m trying to protect my works and personal reputation; a nonprofit should be just as concerned about how a business like Facebook might portray them as they repurpose their content.

There is media — content, that we create — and there are mediums, and in the print world the issues of content ownership are very clearly outlined in contracts. Facebook and their ilk should be applying the same standards, maybe even more so, since they are publishers on a much more massive scale than, say Ms. Magazine or Popular Mechanics.

How To Find Data-Exchange-Friendly Software

This article was co-written by Laura Quinn of Idealware and first published on the NTEN Blog in October of 2007.

 Peter Campbell, Techcafeteria, and Laura Quinn, Idealware

This is an excerpt adapted from Idealware’s article, “XML, API, CSV, SOAP! Understanding the Alphabet Soup of Data Exchange“.

Repeat this mantra: I will not pay a vendor to lock me out of my own data. Sadly, this is what a lot of data management systems do, either by maintaining poor reporting and exporting interfaces or by including license clauses that void the contract if you interact with your data in unapproved ways.

The software you choose has an enormous impact on whether you can effectively get data in or pull it out to integrate with other packages. If you only look at the front end features, you’re only conducting half an evaluation. It’s also critical to determine how you can — or if you can — access the data.

To avoid lock-in and ensure the greatest amount of flexibility when looking to buy any new application — particularly the ones that store your data off-site and give you web-based access to it — ask the following questions:

  1. Can I do mass imports and updates on my data? If the vendor doesn’t allow you to add or update the system in bulk with data from other systems, or their warrantee prohibits mass updates, then you will have difficulty smoothly integrating data into this system.
  2. Can I take a report or export file; make a simple change to it, and save my changes? The majority of customized formats are small variations on the standard formats that come with a system. But it’s shocking how many web-based platforms don’t allow you to save your modifications.
  3. Can I create the complex data views that are useful to me? Most modern donor, client/case management and other databases are relational. They store data in separate tables. That’s good – it allows these systems to be powerful and dynamic. But it complicates the process of extracting data and creating customized reports. A donor’s name, address, and amount that they have donated might be stored in three different, but related tables. If that’s the case, and your reporting or export interface doesn’t allow you to report on multiple tables in one report, then you won’t be able to do a report that extracts names and addresses of all donors who contributed a certain amount or more. You don’t want to come up with a need for information and find that, although you’ve input all the data, you can’t get it out of the system in a useful fashion.
  4. Does the vendor provide a data dictionary? A data dictionary is a chart identifying exactly how the database is laid out. If you don’t have this, and you don’t have ways of mapping the database, you will again be very limited in reporting on and extracting data from the application.
  5. What data formats can I export data to? As discussed, there are a number of formats that data can be stored in, such as CSV (Comma Separated Values – a great format for manual imports and exports) and XML (eXtensible Markup Language – better for automatic integration). You want a variety of options for industry standard formats.
  6. Can I connect to the database itself? Particularly if the application is installed on your own local network, you might be access the database directly. The ability to establish an ODBC connection to the data, for instance, can provide a comparatively easy way to extract or update data. Consider, however, what will happen to your interface if the vendor upgrades the database structure.
  7. Can I initiate data exports without human intervention? Check to see if there are ways to schedule exports, using built-in scheduling features or by saving queries that can be run by the Windows Scheduler (or something similar). Don’t allow a vendor to lock you out of the database administrator functions for a system installed on your own network. If you want to integrate data in real time, determine what user actions can kick off a process (for instance, clicking Submit on a web form).
  8. Is there an API? APIs can provide a very useful set of functions for importing, exporting, and moving data programmatically. For some systems, an API may be the only way to get data in or out without human intervention. Don’t assume any API is a good API, however – make sure it has the functions that will be useful to you.
  9. Is there a data exchange ecosystem? Are there consultants who have experience working with the software? Does the software support third party packages that specialize in extracting data from one system, transforming it, and loading it into another? Is there an active community developing add-ons and extensions to the application that might serve some of your needs?

Evaluating software packages for data exchange capabilities can’t be an afterthought. It’s too important. Buying into systems that over-complicate or restrict your access to data will limit your ability to manage your business, both today and as long as you own the package.


Who owns my content?

There are reasons that I use WordPress on my own server to publish this blog. I keep running into interesting web sites that I would like to sign up with, but two items in the privacy policies chase me right away:

“This privacy policy can be changed at any time without prior notice” is the equivalent of shrink-wrap software that reads, on the box:

“By opening this package you agree to the terms explained inside”.

What kind of world do we live in that allows this type of thing? Why is it so widespread? I’ve found that I have to accept this rider fairly often, or avoid web sites that are key pieces of my online toolset, like Yahoo! and Google.

But the one I’ll reject every time is the one that says, basically:

“Any content that you put on this site becomes the property of the web site, to use in any manner that we see fit.”

Two web sites that really intrigued me, but asked me to accept this ridiculous term, were rojo and rsscontacts. The privacy policy for the latter is here:


Now, I might be nit-picking here (It’s happened before). Rojo is primarily a news aggregator. Rsscontacts is a contact manager. They aren’t places where I’d be submitting copyrightable work, most likely. They probably borrowed the language for their policies from standard sources. But the disclaimer really concerns me because it opens the door to abuse. The mix of blogs and news sources that I aggregate reveal alot about me and my interests — great information for marketers. And the contacts I keep not only speak to my interests, they allow marketers to identify communities with similar interests.

Since my view of the web is, very simply, that the things that make it great are also the things that are tearing it apart — networking creates the environment that worms and viruses spread in. We have to pick and choose how much abuse we’re going to open the door to.